Fancy having a limb sawn off with nothing but a piece of leather to bite into to ease the pain? Probably not, but not so long ago, surgery without anaesthetic was a reality for lots of people.
It’s a Knock-out. In ancient China, acupuncture was used to reduce pain and desensitise particular areas of the body. Dioscorides, a Greek doctor who lived around the first century AD, mentioned the use of drugs such as opium as anaesthetics. Alcohol was also used to deaden patients’ senses. Then, in the 1800s, three different types of anaesthetic came along.
In 1799 Humphry Davy found that the gas nitrous oxide could make people laugh and suggested its use in surgery. He threw hilarious laughing gas parties, but the gas wasn’t effective as an anaesthetic at first.
The chemical diethyl ether was successfully used in 1846 in a tooth extraction by dentist William Morton. Morton wanted to keep it a secret but a patient forced him to reveal his methods.
One of Queen Victoria’s doctors, Sir James Young Simpson, found that a different chemical, chloroform, could be used for pain in childbirth. The queen herself used it when she gave birth in 1853, and chloroform became popular as an anaesthetic even though it’s dangerous.
Today different substances, including nitrous oxide and ether derivatives, are used in anaesthesia, which has come a long way since the 1800s.
Long before anaesthetic, as far back as the Stone Age, people all over the world practised trepanning – drilling holes in the skull. No one’s sure what it was for. The earliest head-drilling operation we know about dates back 7,000 years!